2010 FW Awards: Arable Farmer of the Year – David Miller

Achieving high yields and quality is the cornerstone of a successful arable business and David Miller believes this includes giving headlands that extra attention.

Established in 2002, the Wheatsheaf Farming Company farms four units on behalf of the owners/tenants, treating the area as one farm. All inputs and income are shared out on an area basis and Wheatsheaf owns all the machinery and employs staff, headed by David.

“The aim is to farm each partners land to a standard at or above which it was previously farmed,” he says. It has resulted in four businesses with uncertain long-term futures coming together, to create a sustainable business.

The average field size of the 1524ha managed by David is 13ha. He estimates that this equates to 150 miles of headland and if yields are lower in just the outer 1m, it equates to over 25ha not delivering its full potential. But it could be higher than this.

“One job I felt we were not on top of was fertiliser spreading with a twin disc spinner. We ended up spreading on days we should not have been.”

The 24m Bateman RB17 3000 sprayer was already doing more than 1000 hours a year spraying crops, so switching to liquid fertiliser was not an option. Instead, he invested £50,000 in a trailed boom spreader (Kongskilde Wing Jet) for solid fertiliser.

“There were also environmental reasons for getting a boom spreader, as we did not want to chuck fertiliser into hedges and buffer strips. Applying right to the edge means we can have the same height and performance at edges.”

Headlands are also ploughed before going into winter cereals for better weed control, particularly brome. In some circumstances, headlands are subsoiled for compaction.

Cropping is based on one-third wheat, one-third break crops and one-third winter/spring barley. “This allows us to spread our autumn and spring workloads.”

Machinery policy involves buying combines that are three to four years old and then taking out maintenance and breakdown cover for five years.

“Buying older machinery allows us to run two larger combines (Claas Lexion 580 and 600) relatively cheaply, thus ensuring crops are harvested in time to protect premiums.”

Maintaining quality doesn’t end in the field, it has also meant the company investing in a five-year plan upgrading grain drying and storage facilities. “You can undo all the good work in the field if you get it wrong in store. We sometimes keep barley for more than 10 months, so it has to be right.”

Premium crops include AC Barrie spring red wheat on contract with Hovis, while milling wheat goes to a miller in Andover and Group 3s go for export via Southampton, fetching a £5-6/t premium.

Other premium crops include yellow linseed for human consumption, which David grows in smaller fields with weed problems, such as charlock, that make them unsuitable for oilseed rape.

He is growing 160ha this season, and last year it returned the best margin of all crops. Another benefit of linseed is that it leaves the soil in good order for the next crop. “Being deep rooted, it helps break up soil structure.”

David uses the latest technology and has used precision farming for several years with GPS mapping of P and K with each nutrient applied bi-annually, adjusted by off-take.

New this year is the SOYL system of satellite leaf area index. He is using it to adjust nitrogen application rates on oilseed rape according to green area index variations mapped in the field. “It’s the first year we have done this and we will see if brings any benefits,” he says.

He has added a home-made seed box to a Shakerator sub-soiler for drilling rape. “It’s a good way to establish rape and you get enough tilth.”

On some fields, rape was previously established using a “scratch and drill” min-till method. “But we couldn’t get above 1.5t/acre. By cultivating deeper, plants are able to root deeper and we have seen yields rise to 1.7t/acre last year.”

In 2004, David embarked on a Nuffield Scholarship, where he travelled to Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and Hungary studying labour issues. And his experience comes in handy in managing his team.

“I encourage them to take part in local agricultural society competitions and ploughing matches.”

• Exceptional wheat crop in challenging year
• Use of innovation
• Engaging local schools

• Manages 1524ha
• Contract farming four farms
• Winter wheat, oilseed rape, spring wheat, winter beans, spring malting barley, winter barley, spring linseed and winter oats
• Four full-time staff topped up with casual workers during harvest
• Soils: Light flints over chalk

• For more on the 2010 Farmers Weekly Awards
• For more on the 2010 finalists